SOMEWHERE IN NORTH DAKOTA – Long ago when I was a kid in this state at this time of year I’d play in the wet fields that stretched forever behind our home. The galvanized culverts that ran beneath gravel roads in all directions were flush with spring runoff, and I’d send flotillas of make-believe boats into the swift currents. This was before meadowlarks returned, but in the middle of the mallard migration, and the big birds, spectacularly plumed, their wings backpedaling, arrived in pairs to nest in the soggy landscape.
I was recalling this Sunday morning as the darkened eastern horizon yielded to a blush of rust, tangerine and saffron, foretelling the sun’s imminent arrival.
I was on the back end of a three-day turnaround to Ennis, Mont., running “naked” as a friend calls it, meaning no dog in the cab and no horse behind.
A day earlier in a snow squall I had met a man in Ennis who had left Boise, Idaho, some 24 hours previous, headed north, the hammer down. I’d already given him my money, and as I idled my truck in a gas station parking lot in Ennis, awaiting his arrival, I sure enough hoped he’d show with the goods.
I might not have done the deal had it been a time of year other than when ducks and geese migrate over North Dakota. But this was early spring following a tortuous winter, and oftentimes long stretches of prairie-flanked blacktop prove the shortest route to settling seasonal grudges. Besides, my wife, Jan, and I had sold our pickup camper last fall to a retired Iowa farm couple, a miraculous unloading, I thought, given the vintage nature of the merchandise. Surprisingly, the check cashed, and now we were doubling down in the recreational vehicle department, buying a fifth-wheel from the guy from Boise — assuming he showed.
Which he did, and as wet snow swirled down from the Tobacco Root Mountains, whitening the banks of the Madison River, we swapped the fifth wheel from his truck to mine. In the process the guy from Boise rattled off a laundry list of dos and don’ts that suggested I’d have a better chance of safely flying the space shuttle back to the Midwest than successfully pulling my newly acquired bucket of bolts over 1,000 miles of interstates 90 and 94.
“You’ll enjoy it!” the man from Boise alleged. And I was off, my truck’s diesel groaning as it summoned the torque necessary to drag the fifth-wheel up the foothills that separated Ennis from Three Forks, Mont., and from there toward Sunday morning’s North Dakota sunrise.
By which time, in North Dakota, I began eyeballing sprinklings of snow geese angling overhead, south to north, a pick-me-up observation that to me was good for a caffeine-free five hours of energy, probably more.
Also by then I was growing more comfortable with the notion of returning to RV ownership, clichéd as that description has become, given that some 10 million American households now hold title to travel trailers, fifth-wheels or other wheel-borne contrivances — each of which, by the way, is best owned by a handyman, or those married to one.
“What RVs are,” an old boy once told me in a campground as he sat splayed in a webbed chair, a couple of burgers on the grill and a beer in his hand, “is a good excuse to buy tools.”
The first RV I purchased, maybe 15 years ago, was a pickup camper that set Jan and me back $2,000. The obviously timeworn unit was perched alongside a back road in northwest Wisconsin with a crooked “For Sale” sign swinging from one window. Returning from deer hunting late one snowy day, I judged the camper encounter a serendipitous ownership opportunity, and paid cash on the barrel head.
The following spring, on one of the rig’s maiden voyages, my younger son, Cole, and I traveled to Mille Lacs Kathio State Park under the phony auspices of bonding. Instead our intent was to whale mano-a-mano on Mille Lacs walleyes while also assessing whether cooking, eating, showering, sleeping and generally cooling our heels in a crackerbox was an experience we could reasonably peddle to Mom as enjoyable. Or at least not an altogether waste of two grand.
Last Sunday, as I converged on Jamestown, N.D., the diesel humming at 2,100 RPMs and the fifth-wheel trailing neatly behind, I pulled into a rest area surrounded by hundreds of acres of wet fields like those I played in when I was a kid.
Overhead against a peerless blue sky, waves of snow geese undulated at various altitudes, arrowing toward Arctic nesting grounds, their direction oriented by magnets, the sun and the stars. The birds’ totally unironic guttural honks were the same ones heard in spring hundreds of years ago by the Hidatsa, Arikara, Yanktonai, Sisseton and other Dakota tribes, and with a reverence I can’t easily summon in this age of test-taking ringers and other cockamamie distractions, I listened intently.
By now, going on two decades after our original pickup camper purchase, Jan is well into this RV ownership gig, and she greeted me with a smile when I angled into our driveway Sunday evening.
Happy enough to be home, I nonetheless remained entranced by the northbound geese, and wondered if by then they, too, were settling in for the night.